Thursday, October 01, 2009

Cover Story: Lowell Hess

One of the mid-centuries finest illustrator/cartoonists is also one its least well-known: Lowell Hess. I must thank Shane Glines of Cartoon Retro for bringing the artist's name to my attention back in 2005... before that I had never even heard of Lowell Hess.

Lowell is not only a brilliant, meticulous, talented craftsman, he's also one of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with. He was the first mid-century illustrator I ever tracked down and interviewed for this blog, and the scans you see here today were made from his personal scrapbook, which he very kindly lent to me.

During the 50's Lowell did twenty-two covers for Boy's Life magazine (along with scads of interior art). The one above, from May 1954, is his interpretation of the Boys' Life editorial offices. I've posted extra-large scans today so you can get a really good look at all the amusing details in Lowell's work. Nothing is faked or rushed. Every figure and prop is thoughtfully considered and clearly rendered for maximum effect.

Among the various subjects of Lowell's Boys' Life covers, some of my favourites are from his 'American Folk Heroes' series.

I had a hard time choosing just a few to show you today. They're all absolutely brilliant. Again, Lowell cut no corners... the highlights from each story are presented in a series of vignettes surrounding the folk hero in question. Those who click the image and explore at length will be delighted that they took the time to do so.

I'm confounded that Lowell never went on to work for Disney or Mad magazine or some other organization that could have benefitted from his astonishing abilities after the decline of magazine illustration in the 60's. But life takes some down a path of opportunity and others of equal talent down a dead end. By 1970 Lowell was finding it increasingly difficult to make a living as an illustrator and subsequently left the business.

It must have been one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do. From the time he was a boy Lowell dreamed of becoming an illustrator and of doing the cover of Collier's magazine. He achieved that goal... three times.

Lowell wrote to me that Collier's AD, William O. Chessman, used to call him his 'number one fireman'. "He would give me articles of the 'what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-this' variety," says Lowell. "I always managed to come up with something."

Putting out fires for Chessman lead to additional interior spots (which I promise to present some other time) from Collier's cartoon editor, Gurney Williams. Below, a note Lowell saved all these years in his scrapbook...

Happily, Lowell found a position with a Florida-based greeting card company, Graphics3Inc, where he worked as a designer, illustrator and 'cardboard engineer'of countless three-dimensional greeting cards. Many of Lowell's clever designs are still being sold long after his retirement from the company.

* Lowell has a website where you can see more of his 1950's illustrations, as well as his greeting card designs, wood carvings, and a recent photo of the artist.

* My Lowell Hess Flickr set.


  1. Those "Boys Life" covers are great. It must have been a very good magazine.

    More please.

  2. Oh man, I checked his site out and he can do everything! Disney seems like it would have been a perfect fit.

    A new hero is found.


  3. One of my favorite children's books was done by Mr. Hess. I posted some examples from it last December at my blog. You can find the examples here:

  4. Tracey8:48 PM

    Beautiful artwork. I had never heard of him until now. I will definitely check out his website.

  5. All these amusing details! First class work.

    It brought back some childhood memories. These type of illustrations sent me into endless loops of musing observation; round and round I went...

  6. Wonderful Hess work Leif!

    Once again I don't comment enough, but I keep a close eye on things and ALWAYS enjoy and appreciate your untiring research and sharing.


  7. Lowell Hess is probably one of the first illustrator who made me draw.
    I still conserve a relic of his "Aladdin"; and others of his golden books (silver in France); that I have often copied "brilliantly" with my crayons in the 60's.
    Today I am illustrator, a little through his images.
    I come here often without leaving a word, but today i want to thank him for the pleasure it always gives me when I see his work.

    And thank you also for your excellent blog !

    (i also thank google to translate my french into bad english ;-)

  8. Wait... THIS guy couldn't find work? Now, THAT'S depressing....

  9. Just bought "exploring the moon" by Roy A. Gallant and illustrated by Lowell Hess. They don't make books like this anymore. The art is amazing.